Something is 'Fishy' About 'Majority'

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(Supermarket billboard, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain)

Imagine reading a news headline that declares ‘The Majority of Americans Are Dissatisfied with Restaurant Cuisine” and a story about how the majority say ‘vegetarianism is important to the future of American cuisine’ and that macrobiotics will play a ‘vital role.’ Wouldn’t this seem odd in a land of carnivores?

That’s what I’d think, and if I discovered the source of the story was a press release stating…

A majority of Americans (55%) in organic resturants said vegetarism is important to the future of American cuisine and 74% said macrobiotics will play a vital role. Most respondents (53%) also said the rise of vegan cooking poses the greatest opportunity to the future of professional chefs in America and three in four (76%) said the vegetarianism has had a positive impact on the overall quality of American cuisine.

In the national survey of adults, 72% said they were dissatisfied with the quality of American food today. A majority of people attending a vegan conference who were polled on the subject agreed – 55% said they were dissatisfied, and 61% said they believed traditional food is out of touch with what Americans want in their cuisine.

…I’d then realize that reporters took that press release’s self-selecting results out of context. Obviously, the majority Americans surveyed in organic restaurants will be vegetarians, but that doesn’t actually mean the majority of all Americans thinks that way.

So, what’s this to do with online news publishing? Well, when I read headlines this week that said things like, ‘The Majority of Americans Are Dissatisfied with the Quality of Journalism” and stories about how the majority say ‘bloggers are important to the future of American journalism’ and that ‘citizen journalism’ will play a ‘vital role,’ something smelled fishy to me. (Here’s an example of such a story)

I discovered those headlines and stories were based upon a press release that said:

A majority of Americans (55%) in an online survey said bloggers are important to the future of American journalism and 74% said citizen journalism will play a vital role, a new WE Media/Zogby Interactive poll shows.

Most respondents (53%) also said the rise of free Internet-based media pose the greatest opportunity to the future of professional journalism and three in four (76%) said the Internet has had a positive impact on the overall quality of journalism

The survey results were released by Pollster John Zogby as part of a conference of media industry insiders hosted by the University of Miami. In the national survey of adults, 72% said they were dissatisfied with the quality of American journalism today. A majority of conference-goers who were polled on the subject agreed – 55% said they were dissatisfied, and 61% said they believed traditional journalism is out of touch with what Americans want from their news.

I’ve no problem with that press release per se, but a lot about it seems too odd to be believable, plus the way it’s been reported by others is way out of context.

First off, the Americans who are online (answering an online survey) aren’t necessarily representative of all Americans. True, some two-thirds of all Americans are online; but did Zogby’s poll factor the other third?

Second, how qualified are the online subset of Americans to declare what’s ‘important to the future of American journalism’? My Aunt Joan is online in Montana, and she’s read newspapers, news magazines, and heard news broadcasts, but does that qualify this 69 year-old housewife to declare what’s important to the future of American journalism? How does she know whatever will play ‘a vital role’? How would she know if ‘the rise of free Internet-based media pose the greatest opportunity to the future of professional journalism’?

As for, third, how 55% of people who attended a WE MEDIA conference were dissatisfied with the quality of American journalism today and 61% said they believed traditional journalism is out of touch with what Americans want from their news, all I can say is: Duh, wouldn’t anything else from that self-selecting sample be surprising? I’ll bet that 80% of the people who attended the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference were dissatisfied with the quality of American journalism today and 91% said they believed traditional journalism is in touch with what Americans want from their news.

A refrain in much of my writing this week is ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong.’ I’m for ‘citizen journalism’ and blogging (I, who aren’t a professional journalist, am doing those things right now). Buy hyping those things – either by claiming that self-selecting results represent the greater group or by taking survey results out of context – disserves ‘citizen journalism’ and blogging. If there’s a need for accuracy and objectivity in mainstream media, then there’s also a need for accuracy and objectivity about those who claim they’re checking it. I fear that Web 2.0 is getting hyped as much as Web 1.0 was in its era. We don’t need that.

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